Lowery: Tougher CAFE rule would delay progress

Elizabeth Lowery says General Motors needs help from the federal government, not higher fuel economy mandates, to reach the promising fuel cell future.

GM can’t get there as quickly as it might if it diverts resources to make marginal fuel economy improvements with current technology, she says. Lowery, 46, took over as General Motors’ vice president for environment and energy in October. She was vice president and general counsel for GM North America. She spoke with Staff Reporter Dave Guilford on Dec. 5.

As the federal government considers raising corporate average fuel economy standards, do you have any numbers you would like to see?

I wouldn’t give you a number. We’ll go through the whole rule-making process, submitting our confidential business plans, and so will all the other automakers.

My impression is that GM views fuel cells as its main bet and is trying to leapfrog hybrids, with some involvement in hybrids. Is that accurate?

Yes.

How soon will fuel cells be viable?

Well, you have seen our announcements and what we’re working on. We really do think the fuel cell is the technology of the future, as is the hydrogen economy. We want to move that whole advanced technology path along that way. I don’t think we’ve come out with a specific date. I mean, we’re forcing technology here.

What would be required for diesels to be viable in North America?

There needs to be some regulatory relief with respect to the diesel in the United States. I think in Europe 40 percent of the market is diesels now. With our emission requirements here, we would not be able to have that kind of penetration.

If you didn’t have a sacrifice in utility, could you make a vehicle’s environmental benefits a selling point?

Right now, it doesn’t really sell to talk about the environment that much. Do I think it’s going to get there one day? I don’t know.

What we have to do is work with people, both in the government and the (nongovernmental organization) sector to figure out how we can get to this hydrogen economy with renewable fuels.

What we have been trying to communicate in Washington is we don’t need mandates for this. People are seeing this as a very real vision for the future.

Toyota and Honda are pushing hybrids. Do you feel any trepidation at not having a high-mileage hybrid?

Our strategy has been to work on the trucks, to develop the intellectually honest approach to things. The emissions benefits are much greater. Honda and Toyota have chosen to do small cars. I think we just have a different strategy there.

One thing that I think is really important is how the manufacturers use their resources. To the extent that we are going to spend lots and lots of money to get a tenth of a mile on today’s vehicles, those are resources, dollars, engineers that aren’t working on fuel cells and advanced technology.

So that’s an indication of why you feel hybrids, compared with fuel cells, are not a good bet?

Yes. We really do think the hydrogen economy and renewable resources are where everybody wants to get to.
You can reach Dave Guilford at dguilford@crain.com

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